Privacy Challenges and Changes in our (Automated) Ride-Share Future

Have you ever stayed in a hotel room that was wired to record audio and visual?  Would you?  Probably not.  It’s MLK day today.  His hotels were regularly bugged by the FBI.  Donald Trump is about to be sworn in as President.  It’s alleged that his hotel room in Moscow was monitored by the FSB.  Our frame of reference for recorded hotel rooms is espionage and stalking.  The thought of it makes us feel violated.

Why discuss this in blog about autonomous vehicles and ride-share?  Because people, at some point, do all the same things in a car that they do in hotel rooms.  Have you ever slept in a car?  Have you sung off-key in a car?  Do you conduct personal calls from your car?  Ever changed clothing, leaving the skin of private parts of yourself temporarily exposed?  Ever had sex in a car?  Ever gone to the bathroom in a car, even if by accident?  Expect high level of privacy with all of these.  Are approaching time when expectations of privacy exceed actual privacy.  Why will that happen and why does it matter?

These are all behaviors that became normalized in our cars at a time when cars were just an engine and a steering wheel, not a computer that monitors at all times in order to respond to voice commands.  When it comes to consumer adoption, it is vital that the upgraded versions of new products work the way users expect them to work.  Their function has to be intuitive and the value proposition has to make sense.  Consumers demand this because it is their money and they are entitled to demand it.  Any business or engineering school worth its salt ensures that this is ingrained in the mind of every graduate.  The push and the pull on car design dictate that cars of the future will accommodate us the way the cars of yesterday did.  The people paying for a ride are entitled to a dignified experience and with that comes privacy.

There are some practical issues to that though.  For a vehicle to be accessible to everyone, it will have to be able to measure all sorts of information.  There is a need for microphones to respond to voice command, cameras to respond to sign language, pressure sensors in seats to count passengers and cargo, plus a myriad of sensor technology, recognition software and AI to enable to car to respond to passenger needs.  Then, any car without a driver that offers rides to one passenger after another has to ensure a clean ride to each subsequent passenger.  So what happens if the last passenger(s) in the car vomited, urinated, had sex or masturbated?  Is that spot on the seat new?  Is it dry?  Is it sanitary?  The embedded sensor technology required to assess all of those things at once will probably be cost-prohibitive.   That car has to be inspected in between rides and that involves cameras to assess and a person to clean (if needed).

I started by talking about privacy expectations in a hotel room vs those in a car.  If any of these things happen in a hotel, there is a scheduled cleaning between check-out and check-in.  Capacity is not affected and neither is income.  With a car however, the vision is not to have an empty car drive out to a location, pick up passengers, drop them off and then come back to a centralized facility for cleaning.  The vision is to minimize the unused capacity of our cars.  Most large cities are exploring tax rates that are based on miles traveled and occupancy.  The lower the occupancy, the higher the tax.  Many passengers will gladly pay the higher rate for privacy, but if the car needs to be cleaned, the taxes on the trip back to a service station go up while no income is being earned.  Companies can’t afford to keep those customers, so they would eventually get banned.

How does that affect privacy?  The cab driver of today will throw a drunk passenger out for vomiting in his car, probably charge more to the card, clean the car, pick up the next passenger and then forget what that passenger looks like within a few days.  The ride-share service that has an individual profile for each user and a credit card attached to it can document that event and attach that data to the users’ profile.  Even if the details of the event are not specified, the identity, credit card number, home address or something that positively IDs a person has to be kept to prevent that person from re-opening an account.  Hack any ride-sharing company and bring up a list of banned passengers.  On that list are people who have (or had) alcohol, anger, bladder, bowel, drug, impulse and sex problems.

There are other privacy considerations too when it comes to offering the best consumer experience possible.  Our home computers and smartphones can bring up our recent activity for “anyone” to see, but we have some control over who sees it.  Our phone goes with us and we can hide the screen.  If a ride-share service or the on-board infotainment system is to offer individualized service, then the information can’t stay with the vehicle and must be centralized.  In the last month did you have a preparatory appointment, a procedural appointment and a post-op follow up?  Then your list of favored destinations could read:  1) Home 2) Work 3) Gym 4) Grocery Store 5) Planned Parenthood.  This can’t be displayed in front of other passengers but the sensitivity of all information can’t be anticipated.

And what if that information did get hacked?  There are people who would love to have a list of all the women who visit Planned Parenthood.  Want to out the daughters or wives of politicians?  Someone out there does.  How about just the conservative ones?  Or just the liberal ones?  Or how about all of them?  One of the sad revelations of this past election is that internet misogyny can be made into a profession.

Privacy does not have a single definition.  If no one is around, then there is more privacy to be enjoyed.  Ask your friends from a small town how much privacy they had however, and they will tell you that everyone knew all of their business, even when it was uncomfortable.  If a ton of people are around, then there is less privacy to be enjoyed.  Ask your friends from large cities how much privacy they enjoyed and they will probably report that their privacy was more respected by the people around them.  What gets viewed on public computers is very different than what gets viewed on our private ones at home.  The activity on those home computers is heavily monitored, but we feel private.  We assess privacy based on the presence of others and the attitudes they project towards it.  In the absence of others, we are private, weather we are or not.

Privacy, and our definition of it, is going to change.  Many of the examples I’ve discussed here are quite crass.  We exist and our existence is dignified.  Consumers have a right to expect that their dignity is protected and that means protecting their privacy.  Companies can try to put forth products and services that don’t conform to consumer needs and expectations – that they can do all the things they would in their own car except for driving – but that simply won’t work.  The first company on the market can try it, but the 2nd, 3rd and 4th won’t, because offering privacy makes them more competitive.

What does this all get at?  Change is coming.  Companies will have to grapple with the monetary impetus to minimize downtime of their autonomous cars as it is challenged by what passengers will do in them.  The privacy expectations that people have in those cars may be challenged, but our heavily tracked internet activity indicates that we may not care.  Our behavior probably won’t change.  Lastly, as a society we will be confronted with how we used to react to the revelations of the private lives of others as more and more personal information about people gets outed.

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